CALGARY – Perhaps the best illustration of where the Washington Capitals are as a team came after their 2-1 loss to Calgary on Sunday night, capping off a three-game road trip where they emerged with just two points. Last season or the one before that, it would’ve been considered a failure. But this time Coach Barry Trotz was positive about his team’s play over the last week.
“We’ve had a pretty tough schedule – we’ve had eight road games,” Trotz said. “We have a lot of people out, we’ve got some new people, so there’s a lot of positives at the same time. We’re at the .500-level with all of the things that have happened to us in the first 12 games. But I think there’s been a lot of growth. … I think our guys believe we’re going to be headed in the right direction.”
The last time the Capitals won just one game on their Western Canada swing was in Trotz’s first year, the 2014-15 campaign. Trotz has already compared this season to that one in some ways, where there might be some growing pains to start as Washington finds an identity with some new and less experienced players in the lineup.
In 2014, the Capitals had 10 points through the end of October, a span of nine games. After Washington played its last game of the month on Sunday night, it has 11 points through the first 12 games with a 5-6-1 record. The 2014-15 team ultimately finished second in the Metropolitan Division.
“The talent level is nowhere close to what we had in the past,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “It’s talent level and experience. There’s going to be more mistakes made; that’s just the nature of the game when you have inexperienced guys playing. You’ve got to expect that and help those guys along.”
The Capitals are also dealing with injuries as three players are on injured reserve – defenseman Matt Niskanen and forwards Andre Burakovsky and Tyler Graovac – and forward Brett Connolly has also missed the past two games after he was placed in the concussion protocol during the team’s game in Vancouver on Thursday.
Trotz is right that there has been some growth particularly in the play of rookie defensemen Chistian Djoos and Madison Bowey and 21-year-old forward Jakub Vrana, who now has three goals this season. Devante Smith-Pelly, an inexpensive free-agent signing this summer, has been a good complement on a line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin in the small sample of two games, potentially allowing the Capitals to bring more balance to the lineup. After the penalty kill allowed at least one power-play goal in seven of its past eight games, it rebounded over the weekend, not allowing Edmonton or Calgary any goals with a man-advantage.
But there also continue to be some red flags. The Capitals have surrendered the first goal in seven straight games, exhausting themselves by having to play catchup too much, and they’ve allowed at least 36 shots-against in seven games now, matching their total from all of last season. Trotz and some players have pointed to the team often still wanting to play the same way it did last season, when it had a talented, highly-skilled and deep lineup that won the most games in the regular season.
“The team we had the last couple of years, if we wanted to trade chances with teams, a lot of times, that was in our favor just with the lineup we had,” Orpik said. “I think there’s a lot of times now where you look at our lineup versus other lineups, we can beat any team, but we’ve got to play a lot more disciplined and structured than maybe we did the last few years.”
Orpik pointed to last season’s Ottawa Senators as an example. “I think they had a team on paper that not a lot of people at the beginning of the year gave high hopes,” Orpik said. But the Senators bought into Coach Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 defensive system and it carried them to the Eastern Conference finals.
“We don’t want to take away creativity,” Trotz said. “I’ve never said to a player, ‘Don’t make a play,’ just understand when you can make a play and when you can’t and make your decisions of high quality. That’s what we’ve tried to implement. … Just because the first-line guys are making those plays doesn’t mean a guy who maybe can’t make those plays should try those plays all of the time and be unsuccessful. It’s just understanding what your game is within our game.”
Said Orpik: “Just the amount of goals we’re going to score this year probably isn’t going to be close to what we did in the past. So I think you have to find ways to win closer games and lower-scoring games, and a lot of that is buying into the system a little bit more. I think before, there was room where we obviously had a system in place that was kind of our baseline and our structure, and I think with the talent we had, there was probably a little more freedom to be a little bit more creative. And the coaches definitely aren’t telling us not to be creative, but they’re telling us to pick our spots a little better.”
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